Sunday, September 04, 2011

A wavering line in the ice

A new debate it seems is about to take place in hockey, the place or need for enforcers in a game that for so long has made them an integral part of the sport, if slightly at an arms length of deniability when it comes to accepting what they do to keep their place in the game..

The recent string of untimely passings of some of hockey's more recognized tough guys, is the genesis behind this debate, which like the one surrounding concussion, could very well change the dynamic of the game as it has evolved over the decades.

The sides are collecting their followers, providing their talking points and setting the stage for a discussion that has long been delayed, but perhaps never more relevant to the point than it has been in the last three months or so.

A number of former players fearful that the situation for their fellow players is starting to spin out of control have offered up their very candid stories. Some of the background to this debate has made for fascinating reading, brutally honest and somewhat disturbing at times.

Georges Laraque offers up the most intimate portrait of the life of the enforcer, the quest to excel at the craft steeped in the fear that comes with that quest. He touches on the problem of prescription drug abuse in the sport, but doesn't point the finger at that aspect as the total problem faced today.

The easy access and abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs  however does provide a signal that players are finding substitutes to cope with their troubles and weaves a tale that outlines some very real concerns for the health of those that fill the roles of enforcer today or held the title in years past.

Issues that will have to be addressed by both the NHL and the NHLPA.

Beyond that however will be the need for a bit of soul searching at the league offices, where recently the push has been put in place to reduce the impact of concussions on players (with a keen eye we imagine on those high profile players sidelined due to the effects of concussion, hello Mr. Crosby).

It's a laudable effort to try and change that particular culture within the game, where all of those fine efforts fall short however is the prospect that the aspect of fighting that still remains an acknowledged part of the game, a situation where two combatants, usually larger than most players, engage in the ritual exchange of punches in order to send a message or redress a hit on a team mate deemed over the line, or beyond the code.

How the NHL can express real concern over the issue of concussions and then seemingly wash its hands of the scale of violence of the hockey fight is going to prove to be a very hard to understand bit of management.

When the stars of the game are sidelined due to the physical nature of the play there are furrowed brows and a resolve to make the game safer, yet when the pugilists take to the ice for their short bursts of anger and retribution not much is said.

It's no wonder that many hold the opinion that their craft is considered disposable, or in the words of Brent Sopel, “It’s true when you’re gone from the NHL it’s like you never played. We’re all just pieces of meat.”    Sopel expressed his observations in a tweet following the death of Wade Belak, his thoughts providing some insight into the perceptions that some of those who play the game have, as to their place within the sport and when they leave it.

And that's something the NHL is going to have to come to terms with, though in the end as it has in the past it will be the perception of the fans that dictate any change to the game.

Until those in the rink tire of the on ice fight and those at home stop purchasing the plethora of DVD offerings that celebrate that Gladiator lifestyle, then we imagine the NHL will revert to past patterns, talk about making changes to safeguard the players, while at the same time sending the mixed message that the game is just fine as it is.

Below we've provided links to a wide variety of opinion on the topic of the week and summer it seems,  diverse opinions even within the various newsrooms and guest contributors,  providing some worthwhile reading and more than few valid points on all sides of the debate.

But like all of us it seems, they offer little in the way of consensus as how to best take charge of a worrisome situation

Globe and Mail-- Belak's death should not be a soap box
Globe and Mail-- How hockey got hooked on pills
Globe and Mail-- Getting rid of hockey's goons
Globe and Mail-- Wade Belak and the end of fighters
Globe and Mail-- Wade Belak's death another warning sign for NHL
Globe and Mail-- NHL, players' union to review substance abuse and behavioural health program
Globe and Mail-- Hockey's bare-knuckle anguish
Globe and Mail-- Culture of winning creates stigma of mental illness in pro sport
National Post-- Looking for answers in Wade Belak's death
National Post-- It's not the time to rush to judgment in Belak death
National Post-- Belak death an end to a wretched summer
National Post-- No shortage of help for NHLers
Toronto Star-- NHL players ask tough questions after Wade Belak's death
Toronto Star-- Sorting myth from reality in suicide discussion
Toronto Star-- After Belak's death, NHL must finally take action
Edmonton Journal-- Trio of hockey enforcer deaths no coincidence- Laraque
Ottawa Citizen-- 'Always more that can be done,' Daniel Alfredsson says
Toronto Sun-- Domi: Sadness and anger
Toronto Sun-- Simmons on NHL fighting: Let the players decide
Toronto Sun-- NHL scrappers divided over fighting issue
Toronto Sun-- "I leave it at the rink"
Toronto Sun-- NHL macho men in pain, too
Toronto Sun-- Belak not only one hurting
Toronto Sun-- Coming to grips with Belak tragedy
Toronto Sun-- Jumping to conclusions too early about hockey deaths
Toronto Sun-- Why are hockey players dying?
Toronto Sun-- Tragic summer for hockey turns catastrophic
Regina Leader Post-- Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak are linked by tragedy
Regina Leader Post-- Hockey fights must be banned
Saskatoon Star Phoenix-- Lessons can be learned from death
Saskatoon Star Phoenix-- The Hammer foresees end of fighting in NHL
Winnipeg Free Press-- Far too many NHL funerals
Vancouver Province-- A battle you can't win by yourself
Montreal Gazette-- Cruel game exacts toll on players
Montreal Gazette-- NHL has to take serious look at tragedies

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